Content notification on eating disorders, sexual assault mention, abuse mention
I first became acutely aware of my body in 9th grade. My shirts grew too small and I suddenly wanted to hide behind tight black shirts, long-sleeved cardigans I could store my arms in, and any paraphernalia that signaled my interests—a reminder to myself that I did have an identity outside of my fatness, that my body could be adorned with things I loved even though I had learned to fear it.
Around this time I became increasingly obsessed with horror. My uncle, a DJ that produces dark, claustrophobic techno, introduced me to French horror films like Martyrs and High Tension. Growing up, I scared easily. My dad enjoyed freaking me out and made me watch the early Friday The 13th movies with him. I remember watching Child’s Play and Candyman from around the corner of our living room through parted fingers. I was even scared of lesser, horror-esque iconography—I refused to even look at pictures of E.T. and dreaded Halloween when my grandparents would pull out a fleshy model of Thing from The Addams Family out of the attic.
Somehow, horror became a comfort for me around this time. As a kid, I was enamored with the boxes of horror games that were popular at my local games stores; in particular, I remember analyzing the front and back of American McGee’s Alice, Haunting Ground, and Silent Hill 3. I had never seen a character that looked like Heather. On the box, her hair was disheveled, her skin was sickly pale, and her face was obscured by the grimy filter popular for horror box art in the early 2000s. I bought a copy for Christmas and was disappointed that it arrived in one of Gamestop’s anonymous used game boxes, with the title and year of release printed on the front on bold Arial. It felt obscene.
I started and finished the game on New Year’s Eve. Then, a week later, I played through it again. A few months later, after learning about speedrunning, I challenged myself to play it as quickly as possible and managed in under 5 hours. I felt a stark emptiness skipping cutscenes, watching Heather traipse through rusted rooms like a marathon runner. I was demeaning her struggle, and bastardizing my connection to the game.
Eventually, I’d play all the other Silent Hill games and developed a small grudge against Silent Hill 2. Fans would say Silent Hill 2 wasn’t really a horror game—it was a character study, a tragedy, a cinematic masterpiece of gaming. Silent Hill 3 was never disparaged in comparison; instead, I’d see it referred to as the scariest game in the series, the most raw, the most “pure” horror experience the franchise could offer, somehow divorced from the sentimentalism of Silent Hill 2. This never set well with me, because my connection to Heather was much more personal than to James, who I found wholly unrelatable but intricately written.
Soon I’d meet other fans of PS2 era horror games on LiveJournal. We’d bond over titles like Rule of Rose and Clock Tower 3, but between all of us, Silent Hill 3 was the platonic ideal of survival horror.
There’s a senselessness to Silent Hill 3’s opening moments. Heather has a dream of dying in a twisted amusement park, then wakes up in an average, middle American shopping mall. After chatting with her dad on a payphone, she’s approached by an older man claiming to be a detective who calls her by name. Logically, like any teen might amid the rigorously taught moral panic of stranger anxiety in the early aughts, Heather quips “My daddy always taught me not to talk to strangers.”
He follows her.
Heather turns and jeers, “Do I have to scream?”
The music that’s playing lies in direct contrast to the industrial wailing from Heather’s dream—it’s a liquidy guitar piece with bassy drums and heavy reverb. No other song sounds more teen than this one. It’s like it’s caught between traumas—it’s a breath of fresh air after recovery, but a gentle bracing for what’s to come. It’s the last song of summer before you return to school with sleep-deprived eyes and taboo memories.
For me, it’s the sound of starving myself until I’d lost 60 pounds the summer before college. I’d lay in bed and listen to “End of Small Sanctuary” on repeat. For a while, it was the only song I would listen to when I wasn’t exercising. I’d run my calloused hands against my now-exposed ribs to remind myself I had bones underneath my newly tightened skin, that somewhere inside me there were aspirations other than weight loss. That I had control of the pivot of my young adulthood.
Some of my friends from LiveJournal had survived sexual assault. Others had clingy, even abusive exes. Some were chronically ill and found solace in a promotional image of Heather in a wheelchair. It reminded them of the wrongful medicalization of their suffering. Our commonality lied in wanting to remain anonymous, to fly under the radar wearing nondescript clothes and go unnoticed. Later, we would want to morph into someone completely strange to our past selves, unrecognizable to our abusers and the people who had witnessed our shame. We would dye our hair, experiment with our gender presentation, and explore strange fashions.
In the introduction of Lucy Bonds and Stef Craps book Trauma, they attempt to pin down the structural significance of an otherwise vague word: “Trauma… is slippery: blurring the boundaries between mind and body, memory and forgetting, speech and silence… the history of trauma itself is marked by an alternation between episodes of remembering and forgetting.”
Trauma doesn’t refer to an isolated incident, but instead an origin point in which time becomes abstract. It signals a legacy that remains unresolved and even transmutable between generations.
Heather (or Cheryl, or Alessa) lived on the run her whole life. She’s the reincarnation of Harry’s daughter from the original Silent Hill, who is a reincarnation in turn of a psychic child raised by a cult to give birth to a God. She dresses pragmatically, wearing flat-footed boots and a sleeveless vest with several pockets. More importantly, there’s nothing on her you can grab onto—she wears her hair short and has no jewelry other than a pendant her dad told her to never take off. She can easily slip out of a situation while her chunky clothes conceal her form, her dyed hair masks her identity. The only thing she can’t hide is the considerable angst her face gives away.
Silent Hill 3’s scares feel so visceral because they are random. Heather’s mundane fears transform into a rusted hell. She creeps through exaggeratedly bleak, interconnected urban landscapes: a mall, a subway station, an apartment complex. Marginalized people live in fear of these random acts of violence every day—in these public places, walking home, day or night. Heather’s marginalized identity intersects directly with her trauma. She hates her reflection. She sees an imitator. She’s also deathly afraid of fire, a fear she inherited from Alessa’s memories of full-thickness burns as a young girl. She hates hospitals for the same reason. Heather’s genetic memory exists as a cycle of retraumatization. She reaches adolescence three times and struggles with the creeping surveillance of the cult.
It’s not something she can escape; she can only find moments of respite with her dad while they move from place to place and she rearranges her identity again and again. Those moments, in among pain, become Heather’s most precious memories, her small sanctuary from a life’s worth of grief.
Ultimately, Heather’s real struggles are internal. She rapidly deadens to the meaningless chaos of the Nightmare World. She rationalizes her own fear responses to the uncanny—”It’s just a roasted dog anyway. I shouldn’t let that creep me out.” Instead, she feels like a stranger in her body. She grapples with an overwhelming desire for revenge, a solution to her grief. Late in the game, Heather is assailed by a rotten doppelganger with black hair who she must defeat four times before proceeding. The main obstacle in her recovery is herself, and her struggles are mostly invisible to everyone outside. Similarly, if a problem can be externalized, it can be severed. It doesn’t have to be her problem anymore. She can disentangle herself from an unforgiving world.
In the game’s climax, Heather vomits up the incomplete God’s stillborn body—the curse she’d been gestating for years. In rejecting God, Heather runs towards her fractured self, the memories she’d suppressed, and embraces them. She looks to a future where she can remove her trauma like a parasite, extract it and kill it.
That’s not a moment of clarity many of us get. My friends still take the long way home in fear they’ll see their abuser by the coffee shop they met at. I still have a shifting relationship with food and with my body. But I still return to “that town” seeking that peace, that moment when my own fragility morphs into shimmery, world-weary comfort.